John Kerry plans to make a fall campaign push on Iraq. Since this issue has been one of his major weaknesses (quick: Describe his position in a sentence with five clauses or less), this latest new-and-improved Kerry strategy seems folly. But it is conceivable (although not likely) that Kerry can make a comeback based on Iraq. Here is why the gambit at least makes sense and how -- if he makes the right moves -- it could work for him.
NECESSITY: John Kerry will not win the election trailing President Bush by 20 points on national security. Pointing to the chaos in Iraq offers the best opportunity to dent Bush's national-security credentials.
ATMOSPHERICS: Bush loses every time there is a picture of another car bombing in Iraq. So the summer helped him, when there were two political conventions and the Olympics, among other things, to keep Iraq on the back pages. The more Kerry highlights Iraq -- rather than Vietnam or health care or whatever -- the more incentive the media have to cover events in Iraq.
TRUTHFULNESS: The Democrats have wasted a few weeks trying to erode Bush's reputation for honesty by picking away at his National Guard record. But no one cares much about 35-year-old events. On Iraq, Bush is forced to give the sunniest possible picture, one that will depart from more pessimistic analyses within the government (witness the recent National Intelligence Estimate) and perhaps even from reality. It is here that meaningful points can be scored against his truth-telling.
FERTILE GROUND: Although support for the Iraq War ticked up after the Republican Convention, the public has been roughly divided on whether it's been worth it for most of the year. This shows that about half of the people have some inclination to agree with Kerry if he makes a four-square case against the war.
If it makes sense to focus on Iraq, what should Kerry say and do?
FLIP-FLOP AGAIN: Repudiating his Iraq authorization vote would be the mother of all Kerry flip-flops. But it would finally give Kerry an Iraq position that is coherent, even if it has been inconsistent over time. You can't argue that we have been misled into a mistaken war, yet stand by your vote to authorize the "mistake."
RESORT TO NATIONALISTIC DEMAGOGUERY: U.S. troops have been essentially placed at the disposal of a foreign government. Kerry should pledge never to allow this abdication of a commander in chief's responsibility to happen again. A cheap shot? Yeah, but you better believe Republicans would take it if a Democrat were in office now.
ATTACK HALF-MEASURES: Kerry should say he would never undertake an assault on enemy forces and then pull back to leave the job undone, exposing U.S. troops to the depredations of the enemy they were about to smash. This is pretty much what happened in Fallujah.
Of course, Kerry's Iraq attack might prove futile. Most of these criticisms come at Bush from the right. Kerry won't be able to make them convincingly -- or at all -- if he doesn't believe them. In his heart, he probably still believes there is a French division somewhere over the horizon that will bail us out in Iraq, if only we bow and scrape enough. In any case, now the election will turn on exactly what it should, and be won or lost on the most important issue facing the country.
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